What do you do as Arabic spokesperson for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)?
I am currently the London-based Arabic Spokesperson of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, reaching out on behalf of Her Majesty's Government to an estimated 370 million Arabic speakers worldwide. Alongside print, broadcast and online interviews and press briefings, I manage relationships with the Arab press corps in London and with media outlets across the Middle East and North Africa region. I also support Ministers, Ambassadors and policy teams in their Arab media outreach and strategic communications work.
Over the past year, I have spoken about and supported Arabic media coverage for the Friends of Syria and Friends of Yemen meetings, the NATO Summit in Wales, the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict and the IISS Manama Dialogue. I have also given interviews on issues such as UK efforts to eradicate Ebola, on-going conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen, the Iranian nuclear talks, relations with Qatar, the international coalition against ISIL, the Egyptian elections, Tunisia’s democratic transition, the war in Ukraine and tensions with Russia.
How did you get there?
I saw an advert in The Economist and sent in my application. I was pleasantly surprised when I got through. Before the FCO, I spent five years with the United Nations as Public Information Officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Damascus – one of their largest refugee operation globally at the time – and then Regional Communication Officer for the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Lebanon covering ILO operations in 12 countries just as social and economic issues were coming to the fore in the wake of the Arab Spring. Before that I was a broadcast journalist for several years, mainly for Reuters Television in London.
We had a very active UNHCR office in Syria, the job involved lots of crisis management but also proactive work like Iraqi art auctions, concerts and film festivals. I even produced a documentary film that was broadcast on Al-Jazeera about Palestinian refugees from Iraq stranded in the desert for years.
With the ILO, I learnt a great deal about the region’s economic and development issues – labour rights, freedom of association, social protection and employment – and got to meet youth leaders from countries as diverse as Yemen, Algeria and Egypt.
What did you study at university and how is it useful to your daily job?
My undergraduate degree was in Audiovisual and Dramatic Arts at the Université Saint Joseph in Beirut, and then I read Media & Communications at the London School of Economics (LSE) and International Relations at Cambridge. It is useful in this kind of job to have a background that combines arts, politics and cultural theory. I got a lot of work experience while at university which also helped, in documentaries and journalism.
What does a 'typical work day' entail?
Every day is different, I could be preparing for an interview, supporting a senior official, working on a media strategy or travelling in the region. On a typical day, I’ll usually start with checking the news, my calendar, and then work through my emails. I usually get media requests by email or telephone. Sometimes I’ll give a quote over the phone, or I’ll arrange to go into the TV studios for a longer interview. Or a reporter will meet me at the Foreign Office for a quick soundbite.
What are the most rewarding aspects of your job?
I am impressed with the positive impact that the Foreign & Commonwealth Office tries to achieve in the world – whether it is our work at the UN to uphold a rules-based international system or our support for humanitarian efforts to the Syria crisis in excess of £700 million. You can be cynical watching government from the outside, but people here work very hard and try to do the right thing. It is rewarding to be a part of that and to engage with the Arab world on HMG’s behalf. Being a frontline communicator also means that you can face hostility from people who disapprove of the UK’s role – but I believe that the more we engage, the smaller that circle becomes.
What advice would you give to somebody who would like to do a similar job?
It is important to remain calm and keep the big picture in mind. Press work can be very stressful, as it’s all about breaking news and deadlines. But putting things in context for audiences can be more useful than just reacting.
What are the key skills that make you good at what you do?
In this job you have to be organised, absorb and synthesise lots of information, speak clearly and effectively, and think quickly on your feet – I never perfectly combine all these skills at once of course, it’s a work in progress!
What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?
I’ve learnt that you can’t please everyone, and you shouldn’t be trying to. Because our policies are based on the UK national interest, they can at times disappoint other countries. And because I primarily speak to a non-British audience, that’s not always easy. But I have to say it like it is, 'without fear or favour' as the expression goes. But I’ve also found that if you provide a reasonable explanation, people will be more amenable to your views.
What is the mistake you wish you hadn’t done?
I wish I had done more to improve my standard written Arabic, what’s known as Fus’ha, when I was younger. It would have made my current job a lot easier!
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?
I talk about fairly sensitive political issues in a highly polarised media environment. Every interview is a challenge – which I try to overcome by staying on top of the facts and keeping the big picture and our overarching objectives in mind.
You’re an advocate of digital diplomacy and a keen Twitter user yourself. Why is it important?
It’s instant, it's popular and it's growing. Those are good enough reasons in themselves. But I like Twitter particularly because it cuts to the chase. You have to say it all in 140 characters. So you’re not wasting anyone’s time. It’s also interactive, so you get instant feedback.
How can young women wanting a career in foreign policy use digital to their advantage?
Well for starters, it helps to stay informed. You can glean issues curated by your personal networks that you may not otherwise spot. It’s also an effective way to expand your personal contacts and reach specialist and younger audiences.
There is quite an ingrained idea that working with Arabic-speaking countries can be harder when you are a woman. Is that true and how do you overcome it?
I have never found that to be the case. Arab journalists tend to be highly educated, multi-lingual and worldly. I think some of the best ones get posted to London and they are a pleasure to work with. The topics are of course difficult, as the region faces intense violence and political polarisation, but these horrors affect women as much as they do men, and some of the region’s best reporters are women.
Farah Dakhlallah, Arabic spokesperson at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office
12 years' experience
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Inspiring girls and young women to choose a career in foreign policy
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